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ENGLISH LANGUAGE AMENDMENT Short form ELA. A proposed amendment to the constitution of the US that would make English the official language of the republic. The aim of the proponents of ELA is to ensure that English retains its leading role in US society, especially in the face of actual or potential competition from SPANISH. Despite a widespread assumption to the contrary, English has no official status in the US. For over two centuries, however, it has been the de facto national language which the vast majority of non-English-speaking immigrants have sought to adopt. In 1981, Senator Samuel Hayakawa, an American of Japanese background, introduced a constitutional amendment to make English the official language.

US English

Hayakawa did not succeed in his aim, but others have reintroduced the proposal, and following lack of action on his original measure he founded in 1983, with John Tanton, an organization called US ENGLISH, to support and promote the cause. This is a nationwide, non-profit-making, non-partisan organization, currently with some 350,000 members and a board of advisers that includes the writers Jacques Barzun, Saul Bellow, and Gore Vidal, and the journalist Alistair Cooke. It promotes English as a common bond (a ‘blessing’ that integrates America's diverse population) and often refers to official French/English bilingualism in Canada as a source of disharmony that Americans should seek to avoid. In addition to its concern that English be made official, US English holds that every effort should be made, particularly through education, to assist newcomers to acquire English. At the same time, it rejects linguistic chauvinism, nativism, and xenophobia, encourages foreign-language study, supports individual and private rights to use and maintain languages other than English, and does not propose to prohibit forms of bilingual education intended to ease children into English ability.


Both John Tanton and Linda Chavez (a former president of the organization) have explained why US English was founded when it was: in the past, of the many languages in or brought to the US, none had the capacity to threaten English. This state of affairs has changed, however, with the influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants, especially in such areas as southern Florida, the Southwest, and such large cities as New York. Members do not favour a change in bilingual education from the transitional (in which English replaces the mother tongue) to maintenance (in which a language like Spanish is retained alongside English). They also oppose the provision of bilingual Spanish/English ballots and comparable services.


There appears to be considerable popular and political support for OFFICIAL ENGLISH, English for US, and English First, as the movement is variously called. A ‘sense of the Senate’ measure declaring English official has been passed three times in recent years as an attachment to immigration legislation. Such declarations do not, however, have the force of law. Seventeen states of the Union have made English their official language: Nebraska 1920, Illinois 1969, Virginia 1981, Indiana 1984, Kentucky 1984, Tennessee 1984, California 1986, Georgia 1986, Arkansas 1987, Mississippi 1987, North Carolina 1987, North Dakota 1987, Sorth Carolina 1987, Arizona 1988, Colorado 1988, Florida 1988, Alabama 1990, Montana 1995, New Hampshire 1995, South Dakota 1995, Wyoming 1996; in 1978, Hawaii made both English and Hawaiian official. Legislation is pending or planned in Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, and West Virginia. Public-opinion polls in a variety of locations have also shown considerable support for English. Many have been relatively casual, often conducted by newspapers, radio, and television, but others have been taken by reputable survey organizations.


US English has since the outset been subject to strong opposition. Many academics and ethnic leaders have seen it as a nativist organization that panders to the prejudices and entrenched attitudes of unilingual whites. Linda Chavez reports being called a fascist traitor to her own Hispanic heritage, and has been picketed at speaking engagements. A president of La Raza (a Hispanic political movement) compared US English to the Ku Klux Klan, and the journalist James Crawford has linked the group to allegedly racist funding agencies (through organizations called US Inc. and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the latter also founded by John Tanton). These agencies include the Pioneer Fund, created in 1937 to promote ‘racial betterment’ through eugenics. Crawford has written about a leaked memorandum by Tanton which expresses fear of Hispanic control over America and lists such dangers as Roman Catholicism, large families, and a tradition of bribery. Linda Chavez resigned as president when she learned of this statement.

American organizations that have either explicitly or indirectly attacked US English and Official English include the National Education Association (a teacher's union), the National Council of Teachers of English, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), the Linguistic Society of America, and the Modern Language Association. Many see it as promoting an English-only policy rather than simply Official English, despite claims to the contrary. Reaction has led to the ENGLISH PLUS pressure group (formed in 1987), which encourages Americans to be bilingual (English plus one or more other languages). It had its genesis in statements by the Spanish-American League Against Discrimination (SALAD: an acronym that implies disagreement with the traditional concept of the melting pot), and in 1987 established the English Plus Information Clearinghouse (EPIC), to canvass support and disseminate its views. Adherents to the idea of English Plus have proposed a constitutional amendment of their own: the Cultural Rights Amendment, which would give legal backing to the preservation and promotion of ethnic and linguistic diversity.


There is evidence that Hispanic immigrants tend, like others before them, to shed their original language so as to join the mainstream of American life. Such evidence of language shift does not, however, impress English-speakers in Miami or southern California who feel threatened by the powerful presence of an alternative language and culture. Similarly, despite disclaimers by US English, and its support for transitional bilingual programmes for adults, an impression of chauvinism among native speakers of English is being projected that arouses and reinforces old anxieties among non-English-speakers. Although the primacy of English in the US is hardly in doubt, people on both sides of the argument are likely to feel threatened for some time to come, whatever happens.


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